Fri, Jan 07, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Ex-dictator Pinochet put under house arrest


Chilean former dictator Augusto Pinochet was officially put under house arrest Wednesday after the Supreme Court upheld his indictment on murder and kidnapping charges stemming from abuses during his 1973 to 1990 rule.

The formal arrest, which included a reading of charges and a signature from the accused, was delivered at Pinochet's posh ranch of Los Boldos, west of Santiago on the Pacific coast.

Pinochet, 89, has never stood trial for the disappearance and presumed murder of some 3,000 opponents who vanished during his dictatorship, according to official count.

A magistrate's secretary entered Pinochet's residence with two police and another court secretary who acted as a witness. They left 15 minutes later and did not speak to reporters.

The charges -- one murder and nine kidnappings of people whose bodies were never found -- are related to Operation Condor, a 1970s conspiracy of South American dictatorships to collaborate on eliminating leftist opponents.

Pinochet exhibited "the dignity of a soldier," when he signed the documents around noon Tuesday, according to Gustavo Collao, one of his lawyers.

"Mr. Augusto Pinochet, despite his 89 years and his publicly acknowledged ill health, participated with the dignity, respect and enthusiasm of a soldier and former president of the republic," Collao said.

The once-feared dictator suffered a mild stroke in mid-December and was briefly hospitalized, but was said to be recovering.

Since Thursday, he has been staying at his ranch in the pastoral town of Bucalemu, some 110km west of Santiago.

According to Juan Guzman Tapia, the judge handling the case, Pinochet authorized Operation Condor in November 1975 following a meeting of secret services from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay in Santiago.

Pinochet has been through this before: in 2001 the same judge put him under house arrest, also at Los Boldos, on charges relating to the "Caravan of Death," some 75 summary executions carried out after the 1973 coup.

Pinochet spent six weeks under house arrest before he was granted limited freedom under court supervision. The charges were dropped in July 2002 when the Supreme Court found that Pinochet suffered from mild dementia and was unable to stand trial.

However, the prosecution successfully argued that the former dictator has since given clear signs of being lucid: in November 2003 Pinochet showed no hint of dementia when interviewed by a Miami television station, and in August last year he gave detailed answers to another judge investigating his secret account at Riggs Bank in Washington that held up to US$15 million.

Pinochet's lawyers are now urging that the trial be halted on health grounds. The decision will be made by the Santiago Appeals Court, which will have to assess whether Pinochet is fit to stand trial.

That decision can be expected to be appealed to the Chilean Supreme Court, which would make the final ruling on Pinochet's legal fate in this case.

In statements Wednesday, the heads of Chile's army and navy were clearly uneasy with Pinochet's predicament.

The head of Chile's army, General Juan Emilio Cheyre, wondered whether Pinochet should be brought to trial due to his weak health, referring to medical reports ordered by Judge Juan Guzman Tapia.

And the head of Chile's navy, Admiral Miguel Angel Vergara, said he believes "the whole country feels some concern that a former president of the republic is in this situation."

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